“Liu Chi Alley” (六尺巷 in chinese) is located between Xihou Street and Wumu Garden in Tongcheng District， Tongcheng city, Anhui Province. The allusion of “Six-foot Alley” has become a historical story stems from the land dispute between Zhang’s family and his neighbors.
In the Qing Dynasty, there was a famous family in Tongcheng, Anhui Province. Father and son were the prime ministers of the two generations and had great power. Their names were Zhang Ying and Zhang Tingyu. During the reign of Emperor Kangxi in the Qing Dynasty, Zhang Ying was a Bachelor of Arts at Wenhua Palace and a minister of rites. At that time, the Zhang family’s old house in Tongcheng was adjacent the house of the Wu family. There was only about 3 feet of space between the land owned by each family.
The Wu family wanted to expand their property to occupy this space. The Zhang family vehemently disagreed. The two sides brought the case to the county courthouse of Yamen. County officials knew that both families involved in the dispute were well-known families with prominent officials. They dared not easily break the dispute. During this period, the Zhang family wrote a letter to Zhang Ying, now a senior official in Beijing, asking Zhang Ying to come out and interfere in this matter. After receiving the letter, Zhang Ying thought that he should humble the neighbors, and wrote a poem to his home in reply:
Thousands of miles of a mail is only for a wall.
Why not give up him three feet?
The Great Wall still stands today.
But where is the Empire Qishihuang now?
The Zhang family read it and eventually realized they understood its meaning. They took the initiative to give up three feet of space for the Wu family’s property. The Wu family, deeply touched by this gesture, decided to concede three feet of their own adjacent land, thus forming a six-foot lane between the properties. The two courtesy concessions and the Zhang family’s non-oppressive approach were passed on to be good folk stories.
From this story, we learn to be modest and tolerant in life. Mutual humility can avoid many contradictions and reduce disputes between people. Mutual understanding and tolerance can help people get along harmoniously, and can greatly improve people’s happiness index. As the saying goes, “A bit of forbearance will calm the wind and silence the wave. Take a step back and have the vastness of sea and sky.”
The virtues of tolerance and equality have been passed down since ancient times. In the process of building a harmonious society for people who are open-minded and respectful, this tradition of humility needs to be carried forward even more. The allusions to a “Six-Foot Lane” have gone far beyond its original meaning and has become a testimony to the virtues of harmony and humility of the Chinese nation.
There is a rather famous tombstone in Westminster Abbey. There’s nothing so special about it, except for its inscription. I believe that many people have heard of it.
“When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country. But it, too, seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it. And now, as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realize: If I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country, and who knows, I may have even changed the world.”
It is said that many world dignitaries and celebrities were deeply moved when they saw these words Some people say that this is a teaching of life, some people say that it is a kind of introspection of the soul.
There are similar teachings and philosophies in Chinese traditional culture. The Great Learning is a compilation of Confucian teachings used to address deeply important social behavior. In The Great Learning says: “The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own States. Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.”
“From the Kings down to the mass of ordinary people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides. It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered.”
In Buddhism, self cultivation is heavily emphasized as well. The first thing for all buddhist disciples is constantly cultivating themselves. In What is Cultivation, His HolinessDorje Chang Buddha III provides detailed guidance on self-cultivation. Self-cultivation is the fundamental and essential in the learning of Buddhism. Through self-cultivation, one will not only live a happy life and contribute the best of oneself to the society, but also can reach enlightenment and liberation.
I love all four seasons, but Autumn is my favorite. Autumn is an artist, painting the world in vibrant hues of red and gold. The sunshine is warm and soft, and the sweet joy of the harvest season fills the air. And to top it all off, the weather is just about perfect. There is truly no better time to just sit down and take in the beauty of nature.
Many artists aspire to capture this beauty in brush and ink, to keep a souvenir of Fall’s charm. When I saw the painting Qiu She Yan Yun (Mist, Clouds, and Autumnal Color) for the first time, I felt as if I had melted into the distinct autumnal colors and mist.
“Mist, Clouds, and Autumnal Color” is a splash-color painting that conveys a very strong sense of flowing watery ink and colors. An air of power and grandeur expressed through clouds that seem to swallow mountains and waters pervades the entire painting. The natural captivating charm of this scene is similar to the charm of a scene on the ground after a long, flowing river has just rolled by. This setting is embellished with red maple leaves and houses amid autumnal, cloudy mountains, presenting a wonderful image distinctly characteristic of fall.
When carefully examining the watery ink that produced such charm, one can see beautiful areas that are themselves paintings within a painting and details that are hidden within rough brushwork. Even within small areas are subtle variations of darkness and light, of the surreal and the real, all the while embodying splendid charm.
The artist highly preserves traditional painting skills, large-scale splash-ink technique, freehand brush work and fine brush stroke. Very tiny signs of charm can be seen amid this large-scale splash-ink painting. Soaring charm and exceptional beauty are words that aptly describe this art work.
Bill Porter lived for three years in the early seventies as a Buddhist monk in Taiwan where he began his translations of poetry by the famous Chinese poet-recluse Cold Mountain. Porter’s mentor in this undertaking was the Buddhist scholar and translator John Blofield. After leaving monastic life, he married a Chinese woman and continued his translation work. Years later, Porter began the first of many long journeys in mainland China that he chronicled for radio audiences in Hong Kong and Taiwan. He produced over 1,100 short programs about different Chinese locales, embellishing his narratives with details from Chinese history and culture. In recent years he has focused on China’s great Zen monasteries, traveling to scores of the remaining abodes of famous ancient Zen teachers.
Porter’s main books of translation, published under the name Red Pine, include The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma (North Point Press), The Zen Works of Stone House (Mercury House), The Clouds Should Know Me by Now: Buddhist Poet Monks of China (Wisdom Publications), and his latest, The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (Copper Canyon). Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits (Mercury House) is published under the name Bill Porter because it is not a book of translation. This interview was conducted in Ukiah, California, north of San Francisco, by ANDY FERGUSON.
Tell me about your background and how you became interested in Buddhism.
My dad was a bank robber. He and his gang were knocking off banks in the South and worked their way north to the Michigan area. There they got in a shoot-out with police. All the robbers were killed except my dad, who was wounded in the knee and lost his kneecap. Then, of course, he went to prison. In the meantime, the family farm down South got sold and when Dad got out he used his portion to get into the hotel business in Texas. He then became a top hotel magnate and the family got very rich. So my childhood was one of wealth, with maids and big homes. First we lived in L.A., then later we lived near Coeur D’Alene in Idaho.
Dad bought Bing Crosby’s house. He liked Democratic Party politics and actually became head of the Democratic Party in California. He toyed with the idea of running for office, but he had this problem with his background, so he’d just get himself nominated for different offices and then turn down the nomination. Eleanor Roosevelt nominated my dad, Arnold Porter, to be President of the United States on national TV at the 1956 Democratic Convention. The Kennedy brothers, Ted and Robert, used to visit our house. John never came there, but when he was in the White House Dad used to get drunk and call him on the phone. He’d just do it to show off to us kids. My sister and brother and I went to fancy private schools, but even at a young age I hated it all. It was so phony, with everyone caught up in wealth and ego and power. It all seemed to me to be so hollow. Later, my dad divorced my mother and subsequently we lost everything. It all went into receivership. My sister and brother had a very difficult time learning to live without lots of money. But as for me, I was actually relieved when this happened. After some unsuccessful stints in junior college I served for three years in the Army as a clerk in a medical unit in Germany, and when I got out the GI Bill paid for my college education at UC Santa Barbara. When I encountered Buddhism, I didn’t have any problem understanding exactly what it was talking about. The whole thing was quite clear to me. After four years of college, I could have gone further into graduate school, but at that point all I wanted to do was become a Buddhist monk.
You’re recognized as an authority on Chinese religious culture not only among many Westerners, but among Chinese as well. For example, the head of the mainland Chinese Buddhist Association, Abbot Jing Hui of Bailin Monastery, has directed his head monk Minghai to translate your English book Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits into Chinese. Many Chinese learn about their traditions from you. In this case, your book is a window on the phenomenon of Chinese hermits. Talk about the perception of hermits in China and whether it is very different from our regard for them in the West.
The hermit tradition is actually one of the most important parts of Chinese society. We [in the West] almost always think of hermits as misanthropes, as people who want to step out of, and have nothing to do with, society—whereas in China the hermit has always been seeking the wisdom with which to guide society. My conversations with hermits in China led me to conclude that [for them] seclusion was like going to graduate school. Afterwards they can teach. Seclusion did not necessarily mean individual seclusion. It could also occur in a relatively secluded monastery. Persons who could “break the mold” and become teachers almost always required a period of seclusion for maturation. The Zen tradition represented one aspect of this tradition by producing these individuals en masse. You almost never hear of anybody who became a teacher by just working their way up through the ranks of an organization. This was true not only in Zen, but among other Buddhist schools such as Pure Land or T’ien-t’ai. It was true in Taoism as well. There was an awareness that to bring the teachings they had learned to fruition, individuals needed to be alone with them, and so Chinese hermits have been doing that. Nowadays, when I visit my hermit friends, I often find Chinese Communist officials visiting them too. One woman hermit I visited had six Communist officials in her hut, seeing if they could do anything to help her out. The Chinese previously maintained, and have recently revived, an awareness that these people were doing society a lot of good. They’re like a mountain stream that brings fresh water down into town. The water eventually reaches the town, no matter whether you pipe it down or it comes down as a spring.
In your book, Road to Heaven, it’s notable that at least one-half of the hermits you interviewed were women. How do you account for there being so many women hermits in China?
One of the reasons is because of the inequality between the sexes in China. It was a major decision for a family to allow a son to enter the clergy, since a son represented the parents’ social security. For daughters to marry out of the family, however, was expensive. It also represented a loss of labor to the family. Plus, the family had to make a big dowry payment. So it’s been easier for women to leave home to become hermits or enter religious orders for this reason. Sixty to seventy percent of the hermits I interviewed were women. It was very unlikely for a family to let a single son become a monk because he wanted to become one. If there was an extra son, however, it might be considered a good religious investment to let him become a monk.
You have a new book on the poetry of Cold Mountain out now. How did your interest in Cold Mountain come about and how did you come to translate his work?
I lived at a monastery in Taiwan run by Dharma Master Wuming, Chiang Kai-shek’s personal teacher. He gave me a copy of Cold Mountain poems that he had published. I liked them so much that I translated them myself. After I had done 150 of them, I wanted to publish them but didn’t know how to go about it. An Australian friend saw a lot of books on my bookshelf by John Blofield and said, “Why don’t you send them to him and ask him what to do with them?” So I did. John Blofield kindly answered my letter and we then began a relationship. Eventually I published three hundred of the poems and John Blofield provided the foreword for the book. Now, with my latest book, I’m revisiting those poems. It hadn’t occurred to me when I did the first book that when you translate a poem you have to write a poem.
I know that seems obvious, but it hadn’t really occurred to me. Now, after fifteen years, I feel I can translate a poem as a poem.
A hermit poet you’ve written about who had profound influence, not only in China, but also in Korea, was the Chinese Zen master Stone House. Can you talk about his place in the hermit tradition and why he came to have such a widespread influence?
Well, he was one of the exceptional Zen students who became a poet. Stone House had a genius for poetry that is unique. I’ve always said that he was the greatest of all the Chinese Buddhist poets. And although he was a hermit, he was a Zen teacher, too, and he taught individuals through his poetry. Stone House loved the hermit tradition, but managed to attract people to his hermitage just as if he was living downtown. He is a good example of how the hermit tradition affects society. By staying up on his mountain, he was able to affect the course of Zen in Korea. A prominent Korean monk came and studied with him at his hermitage and then took the robe and bowl of Stone House back to his country and established the Chogye Order, Korea’s main Zen tradition.
So Stone House was able to affect people by being a hermit, and his influence as a teacher was bound up in his skill as a poet. There were Zen masters in China who were his equal or even his superior in their Zen understanding, but nobody wrote a better poem.
What was it like to visit the place where Stone House lived?
One of the things I always try to do in China is “revisit the scene of the crime.” I go to the sites associated with figures that I admire. On one trip, I sought out the mountain where Stone House lived as a hermit. In the last five hundred years a road was actually built to the top of the mountain and now there’s a military electronic relay installation there. Within a few minutes after we arrived we were surrounded by the authorities there. But as soon as I whipped out my published translations of Stone House’s poems along with the original Chinese, the officer in charge told the soldiers to put away their guns. He then got out his machete and personally led me through the undergrowth to an old farmhouse made of rocks on the mountain. He said, “This is where those poems were written. When we moved here it used to be a little Buddhist temple.” There was a farmer living there who confirmed that this was where Stone House lived. The spring was still flowing right behind the hut, the only spring on the mountain. It was just remarkable to go to a site where someone you know lived a long time ago and find the same old hut there, with only a few bricks replaced or the roof having been repaired after falling in six or seven times since he lived there. That’s what I love to do in China. I love to visit these old places.
It sounds like the Chinese officer in charge was quite interested in helping you.
Even though there’s religious oppression going on in China, it is mainly a political oppression. It doesn’t have anything to do with the underlying cultural appreciation that remains with the people of China, even with the Communist Party officials at the local level. It goes to show that despite fifty years of Communist rule, the Chinese people themselves have an amazing appreciation for their own culture, their history, and the religions of China.
This interesting old American man has no Chinese ancestry, but he loves Chinese traditional culture deeply.
He is the author of “The Orchid in the Empty Valley”, Bill Porter, an American writer who is influenced by Buddhist classics and obsessed with Chinese culture. He has visited China many times, lived a simple life in temples, and looked for a place for hermits and eminent monks. Be the Chinese Taiwanese wife of Zhuangzi’s research.
He also tried to pursue the ideal world in the minds of Chinese people for thousands of years-Peach Blossom Spring.
Published a series of books expounding Chinese culture in China and the United States: “The Orchid in the Empty Valley”, “Looking for People”, “The Heart Sutra” interpretation, etc. He also translated and published “Hanshan Poems”, “Shiwushan Residence Poems” and poetry by Wei Yingwu and Liu Zongyuan.
Bill Porter is a particularly interesting old urchin. He returned to China to follow in the footsteps of Su Shi and Tao Yuanming and wrote “Yi Nian Tao Hua Yuan”. When he flew over the sky over my hometown Leizhou Peninsula, he opened the collection of Dongpo poems and began to recite. Because Su Dongpo was demoted to stay in Leizhou Peninsula for too long and left a poem.
“The Orchid in the Empty Valley”, published in 2008, records his journey of searching for a Chinese hermit in Zhongnan Mountain, which has gained widespread attention for cutting into the most secret part of Chinese culture. He felt that “hermits are doctors in Chinese religion.”
Begin to visit the former residences and cemeteries of 41 ancient Chinese poets in 2012. Along the way, he always took two precious bottles of whiskey and three wine glasses, and he reverently served a glass in front of each poet’s grave.
The old naughty boy Bill Porter thought that when he traveled through time and space in front of the tomb and was drinking with the greatest poets in this land, he seemed to have met each other in the air. I remembered that my friend Yun called drinking “liquid meditation”. , Very advanced.
Bill Porter also hopes that after reading his book, Chinese readers can try to experience this kind of travel to find heroes in their own culture.
Poems translated by Bill Porter:
I built my hut beside a path but I hear neither cart nor horse
you ask how can this be when the mind travels so does the place
picking chrysanthemums by the eastern fence I lose myself in the hill to the south
the mountain air the sunset light birds flying home together
in this there is a truth I’d explain if I could remember the words.